Carlisle Ghirardini, MJLST Staffer
Have you ever wished you could unsend a text message? Has autocorrect ever created a typo you would give anything to edit? Apple’s recent iOS 16 update makes these dreams come true. The new software allows you to edit a text message a maximum of five times for up to 15 minutes after delivery and to fully unsend a text for up to two minutes after delivery. While this update might be a dream for a sloppy texter, it may become a nightmare for a victim hoping to use text messages as legal evidence.
But I Thought my Texts Were Private?
Regardless of the passcode on your phone, or other security measures you may use to keep your correspondence private, text messages can be used as relevant evidence in litigation so long as they can be authenticated. Under the Federal Rules of Evidence Rule 901(a), such authentication only requires proof sufficient to support a finding that the evidence at issue is what you claim it is. Absent access to the defendant’s phone, a key way to authenticate texts includes demonstrating the personal nature of the messages, which emulate earlier communication. However, for texts to be admitted as evidence beyond hearsay, proof of the messages through screenshots, printouts, or other tangible methods of authentication is vital.
A perpetrator may easily abuse the iOS 16 features by crafting harmful messages and then editing or unsending them. This has several negative effects. First, the fact that this capability is available may increase perpetrator utilization of text, knowing that disappearing harassment will be easier to get away with. Further, victims will be less likely to capture the evidence in the short time before the proof is rescinded, but after the damage has already been done. Attorney Michelle Simpson Tuegal who spoke out against this software shared how “victims of trauma cannot be relied upon, in that moment, to screenshot these messages to retain them for any future legal proceedings.” Finally, when the victims are without proof and the perpetrator denies sending, psychological pain may result from such “gaslighting” and undermining of the victim’s experience.
Why are Text Messages so Important?
Text messages have been critical evidence in proving the guilt of the defendant in many types of cases. One highly publicized example is the trial of Michelle Carter, who sent manipulative text messages to encourage her then 22-year-old boyfriend to commit suicide. Not only were these texts of value in proving reckless conduct, they also proved Carter guilty of involuntary manslaughter as her words were shown to be the cause of the victim’s death. Without evidence of this communication, the case may have turned out very differently. Who is to say that Carter would not have succeeded in her abuse by sending and then unsending or editing her messages later?
Text messaging is also a popular tool for perpetrators of sexual harassment, and it happens every day. In a Rhode Island Supreme Court case, communication via iMessage was central to the finding of 1st degree sexual assault, as the 17-year-old plaintiff felt too afraid to receive a hospital examination after her attack. Fortunately, the plaintiff had saved photos of inappropriate messages the perpetrator sent after the incident, amongst other records of their texting history, which properly authenticated the texts and connected him to the crime. It is important to note, however, that the incriminating screenshots were not taken until the morning after and with the help of a family member. This demonstrates how it is not often the first instinct of a victim to immediately memorialize evidence, especially when the content may be associated with shame or trauma. The new iOS feature may take away this opportunity to help one’s case through messages which can paint a picture of the incident or the relationship between the parties.
Apple Recognized That They Messed Up
The current iOS 16 update offering two minutes to recall messages and 15 minutes to edit them is actually an amendment to Apple’s originally offered timeframe of 15 minutes to unsend. This change came in light of efforts from an advocate for survivors of sexual harassment and assault. The advocate wrote a letter to the Apple CEO warning of the dangers of this new unsending capability. While the decreased timeframe that resulted leaves less room for abuse of the feature, editing is just as dangerous as unsending. With no limit to how much text you can edit, one could send full sentences of verbal abuse simply just to later edit and replace them with a one-word message. Furthermore, if someone is reading the harmful messages in real time, the shorter window only gives them less time to react – less time to save the messages for evidence. While we can hope that the newly decreased window makes perpetrators think harder before sending a text that they may not be able to delete, this is wishful thinking. The fact that almost half of young people have reported being victims to cyberbullying when there has been no option to rescind or edit one’s messages shows that the length of the iOS feature likely does not matter. The abilities of the new Apple software should be disabled; their “fix” to the update is not enough. The costs of what such a feature will do to victims and their chances of success in litigation outweigh the benefits to the careless texter.
 Sofia Pitt, Apple Now Lets You Edit and Unsend Imessages on Your Iphone. Here’s How to Do It, CNBC (Sep. 12, 2022, 1:12 PM), https://www.cnbc.com/2022/09/12/how-to-unsend-imessages-in-ios-16.html.
 FED. R. EVID. 901(a).
 United States v. Teran, 496 Fed. Appx. 287 (4th Cir. 2012).
 State v. Mulcahey, 219 A.3d 735 (R.I. Sup. Ct. 2019).
 Jess Hollington, Latest Ios 16 Beta Addresses Rising Safety Concerns for Message Editing, DIGITALTRENDS (Jul. 27, 2022) https://www.digitaltrends.com/mobile/ios-16-beta-4-message-editing-unsend-safety-concerns-fix/
 Commonwealth v. Carter, 115 N.E.3d 559 (Mass. Sup. Ct. 2018).
 Mulcahey, 219 A.3d at 740.
 Hollington, supra note 5.
 45 Cyberbullying Statistics and Facts to Make Texting Safer, SLICKTEXT (Jan. 4, 2022) https://www.slicktext.com/blog/2020/05/cyberbullying-statistics-facts/.